By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Catface Country in Portal

This is the sixth in a series on turpentining in the U.S.

One day in 1982, I was minding my own business as chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern when Denver Hollingsworth walked into my office and my life has not been the same. An avid cultural conservationist — although he never would have used that term — he proposed a project to repair the Carter turpentine still in Portal after a quarter of a century of disuse and run it again as a living history lesson. Having conducted a number of cultural heritage projects in the region, I was interested and agreed.

Many people agreed, notably Ernest Carter and his brother, F.N. Jr. With many donations of lumber, labor and other things, they got the still, its platforms, cooling vat and other things repaired and temporary lighting installed. Denver declared that the best way to get a lot of people there was with a festival. I named it "Catface Country" and others made it happen.

My responsibility was to secure support and sponsorship from the Georgia Endowment for the Humanities and Georgia Southern for an educational program and to develop and staff program contents. Perhaps it was a miracle, but it all happened as planned on Oct. 16 and 17, 1982. Program presenters were recruited. Southern's faculty was rich with experts on regional history and culture, including Portal's own Frank Saunders.

Abundant turpentining artifacts were available. Richard Persico, cultural anthropologist with experience in developing museum exhibits, Sue Moore and her husband, Tim, both expert archeologists, teamed to put together a small museum at the rear of the spirits house. Richard put me in touch with Gaynell Goodman Wright, who had grown up in the world of turpentining and turned her graduate research on that subject into a documentary film. She joined the team as exhibit interpreter.

On Saturday morning, various experts and dignitaries, including Jim Gillis, who was president of the American Turpentine Farmers Association, informed and led discussions at Georgia Southern. Then the official program moved to Portal, where the real event was already underway.

Ernest Carter and his octogenarian stiller, "Sonny Man" Haggins, had the still going. (I never heard the first name given to "Sonny Man" at birth.) Many "old hands" from turpentining were there, including Grady Williams, Georgia Forestry's living repository of knowledge about turpentining; and Waver Goodman, veteran field representative for the American Turpentine Farmers Association. (He was also Gaynell's father.) Our designated "interpreters" spread out around the still to offer information and answer questions. It was indeed history come alive.

My "oh, yes" moment came when an African-American man, middle-aged or older, came by the spirits house with a little boy, aged 6-8. To illustrate what he was teaching, he took a hack from the display and went to the other side of the still area where someone had hung cup and gutters on a pine complete with two or three streaks. He stooped and with two swings put new streaks on the catface. I saw that man grow a foot in the eyes of his grandson. That is why I still do this thing every year.

The Georgia Council for the Humanities declared ours to be their project of the year, gave us reduced funding for a second year and held its meeting in Statesboro on Friday night. They took in activities at the still and after lunch left for home, thankfully in time to miss the burning of the still.

"Sonny Man" was sick, unavailable to run the still. Mr. Ernest was sure that he could do it alone, but at the end, he opened the tailgate to let out liquid rosin that was too hot. Some bit of dross spontaneously combusted in the strainer. Smoke and steam billowed, followed by fire. The first thing that I saw was Richard Persico, tall and wide, almost carrying him away from danger. Damage was significant, but volunteer firefighters, some named Carter, came quickly and beat the flames into submission.

Mr. Ernest immediately repaired all damage and reveled in the event every year until he died. He did not object when organizers brought in David King from the Agrirama with his thermometer to run the still in 1984.

The commitment to keep alive the world of turpentining in Catface Country has weathered many other challenges. The "old hands" have died: F.N., then Ernest Carter, Richard Persico and Tim Moore and my wife, Annette, from the spirits house team; Frank Saunders, Annie Ruth Cartee, who sold turpentine and put together the gospel sing programs for Sunday afternoons; Carl Hendrix with his grist mill and freshly ground corn meal; and Denver. Oh, I must end this sad roll call.

Obtaining gum to run the still has become a vexing problem. One year it was imported, another year the quality was awful and one year there was none at all. One of the new producers seems to be a viable source for the future. Prospects are not as dim as they once were.

This is a unique festival because it is dedicated to cultural conservation. All money collected from all sources goes back into maintaining the property and firing the still every year as living history and education. People come. Some come every year from considerable distance. It has meaning and significance to them. So, mark your calendar for the first Saturday in October.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter